Like many others, last fall I read with interest, in Christian Scholar’s Review, scholars’ reflections on George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University Revisited and Marsden’s response. The experience was—in no particular order—encouraging, convicting, and depressing. At different points, I, likely along with others, saw reflections of both the successes and challenges of my own institution. I offer prayers of thanks for the former and supplication for the latter.
One segment of Marsden’s reply felt particularly summative. He writes, on the challenge facing Christian higher education:
The problem is not likely to be that there will be a lack of those eager to engage in high-level Christian teaching and scholarship. Rather it is that institutional support for the distinctive Christian liberal arts vision may collapse under economic pressures. Declining demographics combined with increasing difficulties of attracting students and their parents to invest in the supposedly impractical aspects of the Christian liberal arts, particularly the humanities, have often led Christian institutions to look elsewhere for sustainability1
Building on Susan Van Zanten’s comments,2 Marsden notes some ways in which Christian institutions might “look elsewhere,” focusing rightly on the secularizing trend of shaping mission in response to “the current market-driven ‘gospel’ that education is tantamount to career preparation.” Too true. However, I would add another, perhaps more insipid, trend to the list of secular tendencies that Christian institutions, if they are to survive with their missions intact, must avoid: overreliance on, and exploitation of, contingent faculty members.
Inside Higher Ed, writing in 2020 about the results of a survey of adjuncts conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, presents gory details. Some “highlights”:
- 25% of respondents reported relying on public assistance
- 31% reported annual incomes of less than $25,000.00
- 65% reported incomes of less than $50,000.00
- Over 60% reported per course incomes of less than $4,500.00
- Less than 50% reported having access to employer-provided healthcare
- Approximately 20% reported relying on Medicaid3
As dire as these statistics appear at face value, context paints an even darker picture. For example, compare an institution’s published tuition rate to adjunct pay. At Trinity Christian College, my school, regular adjunct pay for a course represents just less than 64% of the catalog tuition for one student in one class. Even with discount rates of greater than 50% at many institutions, this disequilibrium calls for our attention.
Publicly and intentionally Christian institutions obviously have different responsibilities than secular ones, and those differences are not only a matter of what and how we teach. Indeed, such commitments extend beyond the relationship between institution and student to that of employer and employee, college and local government, campus and the surrounding community, etc. Therefore, a Christian college or university that does not care for every member of its community—students, full and part-time faculty, adjuncts, staff, administration, and even the homeowner across the street from campus, as unique and important, should wonder about whether their policies and structures accurately reflect their names and missions.
And yet, what can we do? Tuition is already too high, and it is already stretched too thin. While tuition covers almost all of an institution’s total operating expenses, only a small portion of those are instructional costs. In this age of the “Lavish-campus-in-order-to-compete model,” it seems less and less of already scant resources are available to pay teachers. But if you don’t get students in the door with an attractive campus with top-notch facilities, then there won’t be enough tuition revenue to maintain even current salary levels. Unfortunately, the easiest solution to the adjunct crisis—simply paying everyone more—just isn’t an option for many (most?) schools. Fortunately, the only road open to many Christian institutions is one that should play to a strength: thinking creatively about building structures of pastoral care and belonging on our campuses.
In the summer of 2018, Trinity created, through the collaborative work of its Provost and a full-time faculty member, a new department aimed at providing consistent support to adjunct professors. An adjunct at the time, I was invited into that planning and eventually accepted the role of Coordinator of Adjunct Care. After my appointment to a tenure-track position, Trinity asked another adjunct to also take on a Coordinator role. Since that time, there has always been both a full-time and adjunct professor working in tandem to develop policies and procedures that aim to enfold our contingent faculty into the larger life and mission of the college. For example, Trinity now offers a small stipend to compensate adjuncts for planning work when a course is cancelled due to low enrollment. We have created a three-week orientation for new adjuncts that includes Zoom-based training on using Brightspace (our electronic learning management system) well in advance of the first day of the semester. We also facilitate monthly meeting opportunities for each cohort of new adjuncts to meet and discuss both the successes and challenges of their first semester of teaching. I’m interested in the prospect of pooling unused meal swipes to provide adjuncts free on-campus meals, and the Adjunct Care team (Co-Coordinators and the Provost) meets monthly to consider ways to further improve the adjunct experience at Trinity.
Trinity’s most exciting improvement, however, is the Affiliated Faculty program. Designed to recognize adjuncts with an established record of successful teaching, the program invites nominees into a more public relationship with Trinity. In addition to a small per credit raise, Affiliated Faculty members are listed in the college catalog, featured on the school’s faculty webpage, and invited to participate in official college ceremonies (with free regalia rental) and meetings. Affiliated Faculty members have access to travel funding and dedicated summer research grant money, and they are invited to develop, propose, and teach new courses in the college’s Foundations program. As a part of the application process for the Affiliated Faculty rank, adjuncts complete a shortened version of Trinity’s self-evaluation form, which provides an opportunity to reflect on, among other things, the intersection between faith and teaching. Most importantly, though, Affiliated Faculty members are free to take advantage, or not, of as many of the program’s features as they feel called to—we often tell Affiliated Faculty that they are “always invited, but never required.”
No program is perfect, though, and there is much work still to be done. As the Affiliated Faculty program is currently in its fourth year, Adjunct Care is engaging in research to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and to highlight areas in need of addition and/or adjustment (over the course of the spring term, we will be reaching out to the approximately thirty Affiliated Faculty members). Indeed, imagining new ways to connect with, and care for, adjunct professors must be a consistent focus of all Christian institutions of higher learning and should be a mark of distinction. Marsden, in the above-referenced reflection, rightly “urge[s] administrators at schools that do have substantial resources to put some fundraising priorities on features that have made their institutions strong but are not supported by the market alone.” While Marsden does not make note of it, how Christian colleges and universities work to enfold and care for adjuncts could and should be one of those strengths.